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Steelers 2011 Preview: More of the Same

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It’s easy for a team to hit the panic button when faced with failure – such as a failure to eke out a win against Green Bay in February’s Super Bowl. For the Steelers, though, there is no panic button.

There are no widespread changes.

In fact, if not for a drop in the ceiling of the NFL’s salary cap, there may have been no changes at all for a team that was a two-minute drive away from a seventh ring.

While the offensive line will be different this season, the so-called “skill players” are the same. And, as always, the defense is essentially a carbon-copy of last year’s group. In this league, familiarity breeds comfort; and the Steelers should be feeling mighty comfortable heading into the season.

The biggest changes came on the offensive line, which shuffled its starters around. While that may seem like a major difference, it actually follows the same blueprint the team has employed since the 2006 season: mix low-round, mid-aged, homegrown talents with versatile cast-offs from other franchises to produce a bargain basement unit around one key player – in this case, Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey.

With Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to extend the play, no matter how daunting the opposing rush is, and the team’s need to funnel cap space to other important players, the blueprint seems to work. How else does a team make three Super Bowl appearances (with two wins) in the last six seasons?

The rest of the offense underwent its changes last season, trading former-Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes and welcoming rookie receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown into the fold. Sanders and Brown are on pace to improve this year, as is third-year pass-catcher Mike Wallace, a positive change that will add to the potency of the offense.

However, Pittsburgh’s biggest advantage is the group that seemingly never changes: the defense.

Keep in mind that since the team’s last Super Bowl victory in 2008, only two faces in the starting lineup have changed, and only one change was permanent. Linebacker Larry Foote and cornerback Bryant McFadden both departed before the 2009 season. While both returned after just one season abroad, McFadden came back as a starter and Foote reappeared as a backup to emerging inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who just inked his first big contract during the preseason.

Even with the 25-year-old Timmons as a permanent fixture alongside the 26-year-old LaMarr Woodley (both draft picks in 2007), the Pittsburgh Steelers will field the oldest starting defense in the NFL, at an average age of 31 years, 202 days per starter. That’s over a year-and-a-half older than second-place Dallas.

“It’s good to have guys with a lot of experience on the team,” said James Farrior, the captain of the defense and a regular fixture since joining the team as a free agent in 2002.

“They’ve been saying we’ve been getting old for the last four years. I think if they say it enough, then maybe we’ll start believing it. We love the group. Even though we’re getting older, I think we’re getting a little better. With age comes wisdom.”

That collective wisdom could turn into a competitive advantage in 2011, a league year that was delayed thanks to a lengthy labor dispute. No contact between teams and players was allowed during a five-month period from March to July, excluding a brief window during April’s draft.

As such, new coaches had to install new systems and create new philosophies without players to run them. Young players, especially rookies, were placed into catch-up mode, condensing an offseason’s worth of work and education into a three-week training camp. Youth-fueled teams like AFC North foes Cincinnati and Cleveland will be learning on the job in 2011.

For the Steelers, though, it’s just another season under Mike Tomlin; just another year in hall-of-fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 zone-blitz defense; just another go for a core that continues to shine in the same city, year after year.

Former-Steeler and current sideline reporter Craig Wolfley believes that the lack of change is an advantage for the team as the rest of the NFL struggles to get up and running.

“You can go across the board, there’s so many guys that have been in the system such a remarkable period of time for this day and age in football – where it can be a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ proposition.”

While Pittsburgh’s experience will certainly help the team overcome a shortened offseason, the shortened offseason may end up helping the defense in another area: health.

With nine key contributors all in or beyond their ninth season in the league, the Steelers defense has quite a bit of mileage on it. An offseason with no minicamps and no OTAs might be a refreshing change of pace for a group that could use the rest.

“I know it made my body feel a lot better than what it usually does,” said Farrior. “It enabled me to work out a little bit longer and get in a little better shape. Hopefully, that will make a difference.”

If it does, it may be the only difference. In a season full of change, Pittsburgh has continued with more of the same.

And with the Steelers clawing their way to the Super Bowl last season, more of the same is definitely a good thing.

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